The reclusive eccentric who would style himself Michel de Ghelderode (a pseudonym eventually legalized by royal decree) was born Adémar-Adolphe-Louis Martens on Palm Sunday, April 3, 1898, in Ixelles, Belgium, a suburb of Brussels frequented by artists and writers. His father, Henri-Louis Martens, was employed as a royal archivist, a line of work later to be pursued by young Ghelderode. The author’s mother, née Jeanne-Marie Rans, was a former postulant for holy orders; even after bearing four children, of whom Ghelderode was the youngest, she retained evident traces of her erstwhile vocation that would strongly influence the mature Ghelderode’s dramatic work: One of Mme Martens’s remembered “spiritual tales,” concerning a child mistakenly buried alive who remained strangely marked by death even after her rescue, inspired most of the plot and characters of Ghelderode’s Miss Jairus, not written until the author was in his mid-thirties.
Throughout his life, Ghelderode, like Jaïre’s daughter Blandine, remained oddly touched by intimations of mortality. Around the age of sixteen, while pursuing his studies at the Institut St.-Louis in Brussels, he fell gravely ill with typhus and would retain for the rest of his life the vision of “a Lady” who materialized at his bedside to utter the words, “not now, sixty-three.” (Chronically ill with asthma from his late thirties onward, Ghelderode in fact died in 1962, two days short of what would have been his sixty-fourth birthday.) Amid the double disruptions of illness and World War I, he drifted increasingly...
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